Trayvon Martin rallies: Has Al Sharpton 'gone mainstream'?

Trayvon Martin rallies took place across the US Saturday. Their tone and nonviolence point to how their organizer, the Rev. Al Sharpton, has evolved.

Mary Altaffer/AP
The Rev. Al Sharpton (r.) is joined by Sybrina Fulton(c.) as he speaks to the crown during a 'Justice for Trayvon' rally in New York Saturday. Mr. Sharpton's National Action Network organized 'Justice for Trayvon' rallies nationwide.

The protests against the verdict in the George Zimmerman murder trial so far been overwhelmingly peaceful – and the rallies in more than 100 cities nationwide Saturday were no exception.

Given that the activism has come during the hottest days of summer – when tempers are more likely to flare, according to research – and has focused on perhaps the most divisive news event in America this year, the lack of violence is noteworthy. And while it is the result of a variety of factors, it is surely a reflection of those who have led the movement. 

That list begins with Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, the parents of the unarmed 17-year-old killed by Mr. Zimmerman in 2012. Though they clearly thought the neighborhood watch captain was guilty of racially profiling their son and went well beyond self-defense in shooting him, they have not openly antagonized Zimmerman. And from the beginning, Ms. Fulton and Mr. Martin have steadfastly condemned any violence.

But the Trayvon Martin rallies also cast a spotlight on their organizer: the Rev. Al Sharpton. Criticized for much of his career as a race-baiter and a self-promoter, Mr. Sharpton has begun to carve out a more nuanced image for himself during his advocacy for the Martins. 

To be sure, with a radio program and a show on MSNBC, Sharpton still knows where to find the microphone. But the tone of his message has been different – still strident, still emphatic, but now more likely to play to the sentiments than to anger and divide.

His influence in the Trayvon Martin movement cannot be underestimated. He was one of the first to bring attention to the case through his television program, and he has been the leading activist in keeping the case in the public eye. While that dual role evokes concern among the media – where he represents the most extreme case of the blurring line between journalism and advocacy – it also suggests that the character of the Trayvon Martin movement bears the fingerprints of his leadership.

Politico's Mackenzie Weigner suggests that Sharpton has "gone mainstream," and she quotes Harvard Law professor Charles Ogletree as saying Sharpton has evolved to become "smarter" and "wiser."

"He's been a voice of calm by addressing a lot of the frustration that people felt with the acquittal of George Zimmerman in wanting to take matters into their own hands," Professor Ogletree said. "He's made it very clear that violence is not an answer."

For example, the rallies on Saturday were for Trayvon and against "stand your ground" laws – not about attacking Zimmerman personally. The tone was combative, and speakers called for Zimmerman to be prosecuted on federal civil rights charges, but they also repeatedly sought common ground.

At the New York rally, which Sharpton attended, Fulton said: "Today it was my son. Tomorrow it might be yours." In Miami, Martin made the same point: "This could be any one of our children," he said. "Our mission now is to make sure that this doesn't happen to your child."

Sharpton, too, spoke without personal animus, but drawing on the comments of the president and his administration, sought to focus the "Justice for Trayvon" movement on the larger issue of laws that, they say, unnecessarily promote deadly violence.  

"We are trying to change laws so that this never, ever happens again," said Sharpton.

He will have ample opportunity to spread that message. He often promotes his own rallies on his MSNBC program.

"Perspective in covering the news is one thing, but when it moves from perspective to activism, and you're actually one of the people driving the story you’re covering – that’s a little bit strange," Lucy Dalglish, dean of the University of Maryland’s college of journalism, told The Washington Post. "There have got to be some people at NBC who are very troubled by this. Or there should be."

But MSNBC officials say they knew what they were getting when they hired Sharpton in 2011. MSNBC essentially exempted him the network policy banning commentators from becoming active in political causes. Its rule has been transparency about Sharpton's activities.

"We didn't hire him to be just another news host. I knew who we were hiring," MSNBC's president, Phil Griffin, told the Post. "He brings to our channel a different voice, and a voice who speaks about issues that are not being talked about regularly anywhere else."

It is a measure of Sharpton's evolution that a major news network – even one as left-leaning as MSNBC – would feel comfortable putting him in front of the cameras nightly. For Sharpton, "going mainstream," it seems, has meant a much wider sphere of influence.

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